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Under Wraps 

A single indelible passage makes Iranian writer/director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's all but despairing Kandahar worth seeing. Above a barren beige landscape, a swarm of ghostly parachutes floats slowly to earth. At first we think people, soldiers perhaps, dangle beneath the white canopies. But the figures hanging from the cords seem incomplete. Then toward the parachutes we see a platoon of turbaned men on crutches rushing through the swirling dust at breakneck speed, some tumbling painfully to the ground in their haste. And we realize that the parachutes have been dropped by the Red Cross and are bringing artificial limbs to the maimed, the countless who have blown away their arms and legs in the minefields that dominate the countryside of Afghanistan.

Suggested by an actual event, Kandahar is the story of a Canadian journalist who identifies herself as Nafas (Niloufar Pazira). Nafas was born in Afghanistan, and now in the last months of 1999 she's trying to return there. Her sister remains in the Taliban capital of Kandahar, and the sister has decided to kill herself in the aftermath of stepping on a landmine and blowing off both her legs. Nafas hopes to reach her sister and talk her out of killing herself. But because Nafas has written widely about women's issues, she can't get a visa to enter the country legally. So she arranges to sneak across the border posing as the fourth wife of a trader. Her journey is marred by setback after setback. Only a day or so inside the Afghan border, the travelers are robbed of most of their possessions, including their tiny truck. The trader turns back, but Nafas tries to continue on by foot. A child serves as her guide for a while, but she becomes ill from drinking tainted water. When she finds a doctor named Tabib Sahid (Hassan Tantai) to examine her, sanctions against contact between men and women are so extreme that he can only do so by remaining on the other side of a curtain and peering at her through a hole scarcely larger than a human eye.

Finished early in 2001 and made on a minuscule budget with an entirely amateur cast, Kandahar shows its threadbare production values. The acting is often unconvincing, and the editing is sometimes dreadful, presumably the product of too few takes. The narrative of the film is strikingly slight, the character development incomplete. And the ending is far from clear. Moreover, the primary intent of the film, exposing the horrible suffering of women under the monstrous Taliban, has been at least somewhat obviated by the light of international focus on Afghanistan in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and by the subsequent defeat of Mullah Omar's government.

Still, the film forthrightly asks the question whether the government is responsible for the dehumanization of women or whether a profound misogyny in Afghan culture sustains a government that tries to reduce the role of women almost exclusively to that of child bearing and rearing. Evidence of the latter is widespread. Men derisively refer to the faceless, fully veiled women in their midst as "blackheads." The trader, who insists that Nafas wrap herself in a burqa like his three wives, explains that an uncovered woman stains the honor of her husband and that no man should ever see the face of his wife. The only entirely sympathetic male character observes that for the women of Afghanistan hope begins with the desire just to be seen.

Radical Islamic fundamentalism is pilloried by Kandahar in other ways as well. We visit an Afghan school where the only "educational" activity is reciting passages from the Koran. The teacher gives his pupils no instruction, leads them in no discussion, provides them no enlightenment as to what their holy scripture means. The students merely read aloud, rocking back and forth as if in a narcotic trance. For breaks in recitation, the teacher drills his wards on the uses of the battle saber and the proper handling of an AK-47. As Dr. Sahid remarks, "The only modern things in Afghanistan are weapons."

The signs of hope in Kandahar are few and subtle. One brief scene shows two of the trader's wives swapping a tube of lipstick. In another, women slink their hands outside their robes to decorate their fingernails. Men can take away a woman's identity, but even in the depth of such relentless oppression, the desire for beauty endures. The other figure who embodies the stubbornness of hope is Dr. Sahid, who turns out to be not a doctor after all but a disillusioned soldier and an American to boot. Soured on finding salvation by wielding a gun, Sahid has come to believe that God can only be found by helping the poor. A significant measure of hope abides, I yearn to believe, in an Islamic filmmaker's daring to invest an American with such wisdom.

click to enlarge Nafas (Niloufar Pazira) struggles to find her Afghan sister in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's timely film Kandahar.
  • Nafas (Niloufar Pazira) struggles to find her Afghan sister in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's timely film Kandahar.
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